Ninety five years after his passing, Chittaranjan Das remains a significant point of reference in South Asian history. There are all the questions which arise with every remembrance of the man known as Deshbandhu to people across what are today the independent republics of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and once were a wholesome, united India.
What if he had not died in 1925? Would India be partitioned had C.R. Das been alive in the tumultuous 1940s? Would Bengal go for a fresh new renaissance with Deshbandhu around?
In these rather banal times we inhabit across the landscape vivisected into political tribalism, figuratively as well as literally, through the happenings of 1947, it is the electrifying, idealistic nature of Das' beliefs that is recalled, to jolt us into an awareness of the transcendental calling of politics as it used to be, as it ought to be.
Deshbandhu belonged to a generation of political figures that produced the likes of Surendranath Banerjea, Bepin Chandra Pal, Motilal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Aurobindo Ghosh. In Das came together the best that education under British colonialism could offer, which was fundamentally an acknowledgement that India would need to catch up with the rest of world, that such a catching up entailed a calling forth of nationalism based on sophisticated patriotism among its leadership and its citizens across the varied parameters of thought.
When you speak of Deshbandhu, you recall the man who abandoned a lucrative legal practice to place his politics at the service of his people. That was how he scaled the heights of grandeur, through being honoured as the friend of the country by a grateful people.
In C.R. Das, the urge for national freedom came not through a demonstration of bitterness toward the colonial administration but through the belief that constructive engagement with the British in the administration of India would lead to self-rule, to be followed in due course by full independence.
That was his reasoning behind the formation of the Swarajya Party, despite his continuing association with the Indian National Congress, in 1923.
He spelt out his dreams at the conference of the All-India Swarajya Party in Calcutta in 1924:
'I have said elsewhere and repeat it today that Swaraj --- the right Swaraj ---is not to be confused with any particular system of government. . . What I want today is a clear declaration by the people of this country that we have got the right to establish our own system of government according to the temper and genius of our people . . . We must be true judges of what system of government is good for us and what system of government will not suit us. It is not for other people to constitute themselves as our judges.'
C.R. Das was a renaissance man. It was a reputation which came to him as a result of his wide experience across the landscape of existence. He appeared at the examinations of the Indian Civil Service, before veering off into law.
He read profusely, was an enthusiast for poetry and indeed composed verses of his own. Literature was his passion. Beyond and above all that, he was a man steeped in constitutional politics, conscious of the political realities, often coated in complexities, that underlined India.
That Hindus and Muslims needed to find common ground was a thought he put into clear outline through the Lucknow Pact of 1916. He was one of the earliest of Indian politicians to realize that if Indians meant to have absolute liberty for themselves, they would first need to come together as a nation that defied communal differences, that considered India as a homeland for all.
It was Gandhi who spoke for all after Deshbandhu's death:
'Deshbandhu was one of the greatest of men…He dreamed…His heart knew no difference between Hindus and Mussulmans'.
And earlier, nearly two years before Deshbandhu's death, Evelyn Thomas, writing in Britain's Labour Monthly in September 1923, eulogized C.R. Das thus:
'Mr. C.R. Das, late President of the All-Indian National Congress and founder of the Swaraj Party, is the acknowledged successor of Mr. Gandhi as an all-India leader. He has snatched the falling standard and is carrying it forward in the struggle between Indian bourgeois nationalism and British imperialism --- a struggle which is destined to be a long one.'
In Deshbandhu, passion was what came into a practice of politics. And passion too was what defined his legal career, as his defence of Aurobindo Ghosh in the Alipore bomb case in 1908 was to demonstrate all so well. In a trial that was to last 126 days with over two hundred witnesses examined, Deshbandhu's eloquence came alive in his closing arguments in court:
'My appeal to you, therefore, is that a man like this, who is being charged with the offence with which he has been charged, stands not only before the Bar of this court, but before the Bar of the High Court of history. My appeal to you is this: that long after this controversy will be hushed in silence, long after this turmoil, this agitation, will have ceased, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and a lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone, his words will be echoed and re-echoed not only in India but across distant seas and lands.'
All these years, long after Chittaranjan Das' life came to a rather sudden end, his words are recalled, his patriotism remains our pride. He would have made a difference had he lived longer. He might and could have held India together, in rainbow colours.
(Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, born on 5 November 1870, died on 16 June 1925)